Blame it on the high, polished ceilings. The swish of silken gowns. Or the tinkle of a grand piano and spoons on porcelain cups. Whatever the reason, to step into The Manila Hotel is to slip into another era. An age of debutantes and balls; smoking rooms and telegrams. A time when passenger ships glided in from the Pacific Ocean and disgorged traders, soldiers and women in hats and long dresses. When horse-drawn carriages ferried guests from the port to the green-roofed, white hotel presiding over Manila Bay.
Our arrival at the grande dame of Manila is rather different. We straggle into the lobby on a Saturday afternoon, frazzled after a delayed flight and traffic-clogged drive past the blocky buildings and strip malls of Metro Manila. We know that we are about to enter one of the great colonial hotels of the East. An edifice that—like Raffles Hotel in Singapore, the Peace Hotel in Shanghai or the Taj in Mumbai—has witnessed history first hand.
Even so, we’re taken aback by the massive lobby with its rich woodwork; the smiling hostesses in emerald gowns; the bustle and festivity.
June is the month of weddings—and in every banquet hall, parties are underway. Mr and Mrs Basco pose with children and grandchildren before their 50th-anniversary dinner. A short stroll away, Bong and Susie Dela Cruz celebrate their 25th anniversary. The evening is aglitter with shimmering nets, glowing satins and chandeliers of crystal and seashell; noisy with boys in white barongs and girls in flowery chaplets.
Little wonder, then, that we shed our lacklustre mood. Especially when we go up to our rooms, push aside the carved wooden screens and gaze upon the loveliest view in Manila—of the busy port, tranquil Rizal Park and the walled city of Intramuros. And when we recall those who’ve been here before us—Ernest Hemingway, the Beatles, John HotelKennedy and popstar Michael Jackson; and Imelda Marcos (of 1,200 pairs of shoes fame), who was a regular visitor while her husband was dictator of the Philippines.
Everything about The Manila Hotel exudes history—the delicate oyster-work screens in the rooms, the flowered carpets in the corridors, and the solicitous service. “The hotel is 106 years old,” says Soccoro Gracia Manansala, travel account manager. “It was the first luxury hotel in this part of the world.”
The Manila Hotel was planned soon after the United States wrested the Philippines from the Spanish in 1898. The Americans envisaged a tree-lined boulevard along the bay, dominated by a splendid hotel. They hired William Parsons, who chose a design inspired by the handsome California missions.
When it opened, The Manila Hotel boasted a telephone in every room, a breezy roof garden and swinging parties. It was a magnet for prosperous Filipinos and visitors from around the world—and the entrance hall was filled with silk saris, kimonos, dishdashas and Filipino sayas.
The most famous guest was Douglas MacArthur, US general and military adviser to the Philippines. The general demanded accommodation to rival the presidential palace. So architect Andres Luna de San Pedro built an air-conditioned penthouse over The Manila Hotel.
Meanwhile, World War II had broken out and on December 8, 1941, Manila was attacked by the Japanese. For the rest of the war, The Manila Hotel was occupied by Japanese troops. The staff was permitted to speak only Japanese and the chefs instructed to cook only Japanese food.
During the liberation of Manila, the hotel saw bitter room-to-room combat and a terrible conflagration. MacArthur was frantic to rescue his “home atop The Manila Hotel”. But when he returned, all he found were ashes and an empty shell.
Of course, The Manila Hotel emerged from the ashes. It acquired a tower wing and now boasts 570 atmospheric rooms. Through all the upheavals and upgrades, however, the hotel has retained its soul. And position as the grande dame of Manila.
Accommodation: 570 rooms including grand deluxe, superior deluxe twin, superior deluxe king, Luneta suite, Intramuros and sunrise/sunset suite